The Art of Gift Giving

On Sunday, our family will get together for Christmas presents exchanging. It’s not the first time we are exchanging presents on a day other than Christmas Eve (we are “the Eve family”). Due to both our family being distributed and members having demanding jobs, it happens quite often. Sometimes we get together before Christmas, sometimes – after. Sometimes on the right date :). In the course of many years, we learned that dates are not that important. What is important, though – that over the years, my children not only mastered the art of giving presents but are doing it better than I.

SInce 2011, we always recorded our Christmas gift-giving, in full or partially, and I spent the last hour going through these recordings. I will post a small fraction of them here, to give an idea, how did it look like in the past. It is looking more or less the same every year. Every year I am delighted to hear multiple “how did you know?!”

I firmly believe that Christmas presents should be special. They might be practical (like on several of these videos my children receive computers for Christmas). Still, they should be at least partially surprises, something a gift recipient does not expect to receive.

You will hear some Russian in the videos, but I hope that everything will be understandable regardless :).

Christmas 2012
Christmas 2012
Christmas 2013
Christmas 2014 we had guests from Moscow,
and also Vlad lost his voice and could not perform his Elf duties

For the record, Vlad still wear that coat from the last video!

I stopped myself from watching these old videos, because I could easily do it till tomorrow:). Now I am going to schedule this post so that it would appear tomorrow morning, and then we shall see, how our gift-giving will go in the evening.

What I Did and What I Didn't Do This Season

Many people told me that they are impressed with how much I managed to do this holiday season. Most of the time it is expressed in a rhetorical question – how I manage to find time to do “all that.” The truth is, this season I did less than I normally do. The reason why it does not seem so is that I knew ahead that won’t have time for all my usual activities, and I planned which of them I am going to reschedule or cut entirely. 

The moment Anna asked me: Mom, are you still enjoying your Christmas, or are you stressed out, I realized I need to watch for the latter. I can’t rush when choosing presents. I can’t rush when I wrap presents, because this is an enjoyable activity. I need to wrap carefully each and single cookie I am sending out because that’s the way I add my love to the recipe :).

And you know what? I am really happy with my season. I didn’t do any of the shows: either Welcome Yule, nor the Christmas Carol, nor the Nutcracker. And I am OK with that. I didn’t get a chance to listen to the Caroling at the Cloud Gate, not even once, and this is a little bit upsetting. But I am delighted that I had time to meet with many people who are near and dear to me. People are the most important, and for all the rest, there will be next year – this is not the last Christmas season! 

Mom and I had a subscription concert on Dec 20, it was a matinee, and it was one of the days when I  could not leave work earlier. I’ve exchanged out tickets for Sunday matinee, the same show. It was great since it was Dec22, and all shopping and packing was done. I could spend time with Mom, not thinking about other things in the background. I also delivered two more boxes of cookies:), and we had lunch with my friend Lena -2 (not to be taken for Lena -1 from Michigan).

Continue reading “What I Did and What I Didn't Do This Season”

Before I Get Back to Work and Life…

I’ve already posted this video on Instagram, but Instagram saves only the first minute. Here is the full version – all three minutes :). There are lots of things I am going to write about in the next several days, which will be relatively relaxing (but only relatively:)). Still, before all these things, I just wanted to say how much I love my house at Christmas and how happy I am to be able to spend this after-Christmas time here by myself.

I spent the last couple of hours sitting by the fireplace, catching up with my friends’ updates, and drinking hot black tea with Finnish blueberry liquor. And having some parmesan cheese with the most fantastic fig jam with ginger and cardamon, a Christmas gift from my friend.

My Cookies – All Over the World!

They started to arrive! In fact, quite a bit of them arrived before Christmas, as I hoped!

My cookies in Germany
My cookies in Helsinki, hand- delivered by me
In Minnesota
In Indiana
In Michigan

Im am also informed, that they made their way to California, New York and Ohio, and overseas to Moldova, Switzerland and Bashkortostan (in Russia).

I hope now everybody believes that my cookies are real :). Happy Boxing Day and Happy New Year!

Christmas Away From Home

Since my friend, N. told me that she chooses to spend the holidays not with her family but with people who would be alone otherwise, I was thinking about it. And the more I think, the more I realize, how right is it.
A couple of days before my departure to Helsinki I stopped by my neighbor Renate to drop off a box of my cookies and to wish her a Merry Christmas. It turned out that our other neighbor was visiting at the same time, so instead of leaving immediately, I sat down and chatted for a little bit. I told them about our family travel plans and how we all are in different places. And then I mentioned this idea about spending the holidays with somebody how can’t spend them with the family or does not have one.

And then, all of a sudden, both my neighbors started to recall similar stories. Renate mentioned her son in law spending Christmas by covering the night shift in the PAWS homeless shelter. Then my other neighbor recalled her time being a nurse and covering the Christmas shift as well, and then Renate told us that she did the same while working on reception in the senior home.

Both of them were saying how good it feels and how happy and grateful the people were. It looks like it is not so uncommon not to be with your family for Christmas, and it’s surprising people do not talk about it that much.

Next time, when I will have the circumstances similar to what I had this year, I think I know what I am going to do :).

Christmas Eve in Helsinki

One of the craziest things I ever did – the flights both way with two connections, more time in the air than in Helsinki. But if I am supposed to be not just a godmother for Sonia, but a Fairy Godmother for the whole family, I have to measure to these standards!


Flying there:

O’Hare Airport
O’Hare Airport: the best things for Christmas!
I had to explain this Santa that I am going were the REAL Santa lives!
Continue reading “Christmas Eve in Helsinki”

Another Cookie Decorating Activity

Last Tuesday, we had a cookie decorating night in the Open Door Shelter. I brought in some cookies which we left undecorated on Sunday (when we ran out of decorating ideas), and also some dough to cut and bake.

That was the third time I organized the cookie decorating in ODS, and it was the best time ever. The youth got so engaged – the staff decided not to pull them out for other activities. Everybody did phenomenally. Some kids were saying they are not good with arts, but I replied with my usual “this is not a test.” At some point, the staff joined us in the kitchen, and I asked – would you like to cut the cookies? And they did and also decorated some.

I am inserting several pictures with their work in progress and the finished cookies. I was amazed both by their creativity and delivery:) I told them they are invited to my house next Christmas to help me decorate 🙂

Continue reading “Another Cookie Decorating Activity”

My Christmas Charities

I still have several minor Christmas to-dos: a couple of people will stop by my house for cookies pickup, I still need to wrap two presents which will be delivered after Christmas, and I still didn’t pack for my holiday adventure. Nevertheless – today is a quiet evening, and I feel very satisfied with what I’ve done this season. 

All the things I’ve done are the ones I love to do, things which are an integrala part of my Christmas, and which I do not want to do in a hurry or just for the sake of them being checked. There are two charities which I am doing every year for the holidays: the Secret Santa for Chicago public schools and “Adopt a family” at the Palatine township. 

Secret Santa  I am participating is probably much like any other Secret Santa project in the US; it’s just that I know people and have seen all their activities expanding. I am doing it for nine or ten years. For the first several years, they also asked us to write the kids the letters from Santa. From myself and Anna, it was the most enjoyable part, but I guess not all of the donors were up to that, so later we were only asked to buy the gifts. 

There are always some interesting letters. Once a boy asked for the real dinosaurs, and we bought him a dinosaurs book and a toy dinosaur, and write a letter from Santa asking to practice the dinosaur care first. I remember how I cried when a girl from the family shelter asked for “a bag to carry my stuff around.” I remember the thank you letters, where the kids would write that they had “the best Christmas ever.”

For this program, the donors are limited by $35-$40 per child; all presents are opened in the classrooms, and the program coordinators are trying to avoid comparison. It becomes a challenging task, especially when the kids also ask for clothing, but I learned to be creative and to shop for good prices.

This yeat, one of the letters read: I want this and that, and actually, I want a real puppy, but I know Santa you can’t get it for me, so a toy puppy on the leash will do!

I like that this program starts very early in the season, and you can shop avoiding the crowd. But this year, this same fact presented an extra challenge for me: I had to shop for the presents before the conference and the training. But in the end, I was able to put some thoughts into it, and package everything nicely, and deliver to the only gift collecting points in the Loop.

As for “Adopt a Family,” I did it the first time in 2000 when I felt that so many people helped me, that I need to give back. It turned out it was too early. Having to buy presents for one more family in addition to mine, spending $75 for each family member was over my budget. I returned to this program several years later, and my kids took the most active part in our gift giving. Maybe, next Christmas I will share some of our old stories, but now I just wanted to say that this program is equally important to me. It allows me to give back to my community, which helped me a lot when I first came to Palatine.

This year, as always, I discussed all the gifts with Anna, and they arrived on time and were ready for delivery. For several years now, the program asks for the gift cards for adults in the family, “to purchase food and necessities,” and I always feel sad that I am not allowed to add anything personal for adults. I would love to add it 🙂

My Christmas Baking Days

I did very little blogging in the past week because my life took over my virtual reality, and I am trying to catch up now!
The most significant part of my Christmas is baking, and I had a Big Baking Weekend! My friend Lena from Ann Arbor came to visit me, and we spent the weekend like in old times. We did it for so many years before Lena moved away from Palatine, we know each other’s recipes, Lena knows where the things are in my kitchen and how to organize an assembly line.

Here are some more pictures in addition to the last week’s photos.

From left to right: sugar cookies, tea cakes, white chocolate- macadamia, thumbprints.
Second row: chocolate chips, double chocolate,kolacki
Gingerbread and sugar cookies
I can’t make gingerbread cookies, so if Lena is not here, I have none.
But this year she is here!
Continue reading “My Christmas Baking Days”